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Authors: William W. Johnstone

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BOOK: Day of Independence
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“Damn it, Dupoix, you should have let Randall kill the Ranger and then gunned him,” Abe Hacker said, his tight little eyes blazing. “This was ill done.”

“I wanted to stop him killing the Ranger,” the gambler said.

“Who's side are you on, Dupoix?” Hacker said.

“You're paying my wages, Abe.”

“Then I want the damned Ranger dead. He could interfere with my plans.”

“How could a man who's so shot up he can't even get out of bed interfere with your plans?”

“I don't know. But I'm not a man who takes chances.” Hacker waved a chubby hand. “I can deal with the rubes, but a Ranger is the joker in the deck.”

“What are your plans, Abe?”

“You'd like to know, huh?”

“I've been sitting around for weeks doing nothing, drawing gun wages I can't justify.”

“Yeah, well, just set tight for a while longer. Your time will come.”

“What are your plans, Abe?” Dupoix said again.

As was his habit of late, Hacker was still in bed though the afternoon light was shading in to evening. He was naked, pale, and sweating like a tallow candle in the fetid atmosphere of the hotel room.

Nora sat in a chair, in her dressing gown, pretending not to notice her lover's stink as she kept her eyes lowered to a dime novel.

“You read the Bible, Dupoix?” Hacker said.

“All I read are faces across the baize,” the gambler said.

“Well, I'm sure your Ranger friend has a Bible. All them do-gooders have one.”

“What do I read, chapter and verse?”

“Hell, I don't know that chapter and verse stuff. Just thumb through the Book until you get to the part that talks about a plague of locusts descending on Egypt, or get the Ranger to read it to you.”

“No need for that. I remember the story.”

Hacker's smile was unpleasant. “Well, now you know my plan,” he said.

“As far as I'm aware, there are no locusts in this part of Texas,” Dupoix said.

“Well, that's where you're wrong, ain't you?” Hacker said. He nodded in the direction of the door. “Now get out of here. And remember, I want that Ranger dead. Smother him with a pillow if you have to, but kill him.”

“You're the boss,” Dupoix said.

And Nora looked at him and smiled.



Baptiste Dupoix tapped on Hank Cannan's door, then stepped inside when the Ranger said, “Come in.”

Dupoix halted in his tracks, staring at the unwavering muzzle of Cannan's gun.

“A Colt pointing at his brisket is hardly a friendly way to greet a man,” he said.

“You're not my friend, Baptiste,” Cannan said.

“But I'm not your enemy. Abe Hacker is your enemy.”

“A man who draws gun wages from my foe, is my enemy,” Cannan said. “Isn't that how it goes?”

“Foe. I've only seen that word in poems when I was a boy.”

“It fits,” Cannan said. He lowered the Colt. “But you didn't come here to kill me today, did you?”

“I've already killed a man today, Cannan. I don't much feel like killing another.”

Dupoix stepped around the bed, picked up the Old Crow, and held the bottle up to the light of the oil lamp.

“There's enough,” he said. He poured whiskey into the glasses and handed one to Cannan. “Like old times, huh?”

Dupoix reached into his coat pocket, and Cannan tensed and moved his hand closer to his Colt.

The gambler smiled. He threw a sack of tobacco and papers on the bed.

“I don't think you cared for my brand of cigars much, so I brought you the makings. Oh, and you'll need these lucifers,” he said, handing over a box of matches.

“Who did you kill, Dupoix?” Cannan said, his face like stone.

“Not one of your friends, I assure you,” the gambler said. “I disposed of that fine gentleman Dave Randall.”

“He was one of the men who tried to kill me,” Cannan said.

“Indeed. And now they're both dead.”

“Jess Gable was murdered, and not by my hand,” the Ranger said.

“Can you murder a man who's already dead, or at least dying?”

“Yes, you can. Who cut his throat, Dupoix? You?”

The gambler shook his head. “Not my style. No, I suspect it was Hacker.”


“Because Gable failed him. I mean, you're still alive and kicking, aren't you? Hacker doesn't much like that.”

“You're sunburned, Dupoix. Did Hacker send you out after Randall?”

“No, it was my own idea. Dave didn't go far, and he wasn't difficult to track, even for a gambler. When it came down to getting our work in, I got lucky. Dave's gun misfired.”

“It happens sometimes,” Cannan said. He looked down at his fingers busily building a cigarette and said, “Why did you feel the need to kill him?”

“Because I knew he'd come back here to the hotel and finish the job to get himself in good with Hacker,” Dupoix said.

“Why are you so concerned for my welfare?” A match flared, and he lit his cigarette.

Dupoix smiled. “Because I like you, Cannan. You're an honorable man and one meets so few of those in the gambling profession. Besides, you always look like a big ol' angry walrus and that makes me laugh.”

Cannan inhaled deeply, then let the smoke drift out with his words. “Amusing to you or not, you know I'm duty-bound to hang you, Dupoix.”

“And I may be duty-bound to gun you, Ranger. But let's not build houses on a bridge we haven't crossed yet.”

“All right, we'll lay that aside for the moment,” Cannan said. “Tell me if I have enough evidence to arrest Abe Hacker.”

“I didn't see him do it, Cannan,” Dupoix said.

“What about his woman?”

“Nora? She didn't see it, either, and even if she did, she wouldn't testify against her meal ticket.”

“Anyone else?”

“Nope. Not a soul.” Dupoix sat on a chair, crossed his legs, and lit a cigar. The whiskey in his hand glowed like Black Hills gold in the waning light. “Besides all that, you can't even get out of bed, Cannan. How are you going to arrest anybody?”

“I can deputize some of the townsmen.”

“And leave a dozen of them dead on the ground? Too steep a price to pay for a rat like Hacker.”

“You don't like him, do you?”

“No, but I don't have to like him to take his money.” Dupoix sipped his drink and said, “Without much success, I've been trying to buck a losing streak that started in Denver a year ago. Right now I'm down to my last chip, and I need this job.”

“The people of this town all the way up to the mayor are concerned about Hacker,” Cannan said.

“They should be,” Dupoix said.

“What the hell is he up to?” Cannan said.

“It's all in the Bible,” Dupoix said.

The Ranger choked on his whiskey, then wiped his wet mustache with the back of his hand.

“What bible?”

“The holy one, I guess,” Dupoix said.

Seeing Cannan stare at him in puzzlement, he added, “Hacker said his plan for Last Chance, its fields, orchards and ranches, is all written down in the Bible.” Dupoix smiled. “He said a do-gooder like you would have one.”

“My wife has one,” Cannan said. Then, scowling, “Damn it, I hurt like hell all over.”

Dupoix, relaxed, watched the lazy drift of his cigar smoke. “It's from shock, Ranger Cannan. I mean Abe Hacker getting his villainous inspiration from the Good Book.”

“What part, Dupoix?”

“The part that says God sent a plague of locusts to destroy the land of Egypt.” Dupoix frowned. “Or was it Moses who sent the locusts? I can't quite remember.”

“Whoever sent them, that's not a plan,” Cannan said.

Dupoix shrugged. “Hacker thinks it is.”

“A plague of locusts... locusts...” Cannan said. “Hell, I don't get it.”

“Nor do I, Cannan. Unless the locusts decided that they're on Hacker's side.” Dupoix smiled and rose to his feet. “Maybe this town should stock up on flyswatters.”



A low mist hung low over the bayou so all Henriette Valcour saw of Jacques St. Romain was his gray head poking above the haze.

“Jacques,” she called out, her voice a hollow echo, “you come over here now. I need to talk with you, me.”

“I wasn't huntin' your gators, Miz Henriette,” the old man yelled.

“Then what was you huntin'? The loups-garous?”

Jacques paddled his canoe closer.

“I don't bother them none, Miz Valcour, and them gettin' ready for the ball an' everyt'ing.”

“You come here, Jacques.”

“I ain't lookin' at you none, me. An' don't you go lookin' at me, Miz Valcour. You turn me into a frog, maybe so.”

Jacques had muddy brown eyes, the whites cracked with red. His hands on the paddle were huge and muscular, a legacy of the twenty years he did on the Huntsville State Prison rock pile for murder.

“You come closer, Jacques,” Henriette said. “All this shouting will bring the loups-garous.”

The old man quickly paddled closer, the pearly mist opening and closing around him.

He stood in the canoe and held on to a porch floorboard to steady himself. His eyes were downcast, staring at his bare feet.

“You know dreams, Jacques,” Henriette said.

A shake of the gray head, then, “I know nothin' about dreams, me. When a man has a dream his soul wanders an' sometimes it don't ever come back.”

“You dream, Jacques. We all dream.”

“No. Never, Miz Henriette. I tole you so.”

“You read your Bible, Jacques?”

“Every day, Miz Henriette. I got a t'ing to atone for. That's what Father Jarreau say.”

“You poor thing, you strangled a cheating, painted woman and you paid for it,” Henriette said.

“It was a bad t'ing I done, Miz Henriette.”

“Yes, it was a bad thing, Jacques.”

“An' that's why I read my Bible every day, me.”

“You remember the plague of locusts?”

“Oh yes, ma'am. I remember. The king of Egypt wouldn't let the slaves go free an' God sent locusts to devour the land.” Jacques shook his head. “It was a bad t'ing that king done.”

“Last night I dreamed I saw locusts destroy the land and my grandson tried to stop them, but they devoured him and picked his flesh clean to the bone.”

“It was a bad dream, Miz Henriette.”

“What does it mean, Jacques?”

“I don't know what it means.”

“You know dreams, Jacques.”

“Don' ax me no more.”

“What did I see in my dream?”

Jacques looked around him, into the swamp where the loups-garous lived. The mist had grown thicker and the air smelled and tasted foul, of black ooze and decay.

“Where is your grandson?” Jacques said.

“I saw him beside a great river. The locusts came from beyond the river and spread over the land and destroyed everything in their path.”

Jacques closed his eyes, looking into his own darkness where the pictures formed.

Finally, after several minutes, he said, “Invaders will come across the river and your grandchild will try to stop them, but they'll kill him and flay his skin from his bones.”

“Can I help him?” Henriette said.

“The dream says nothin' about he'p, Miss Henriette. Maybe you can, maybe you can't, the dream doesn't tell me.”

“Who are these invaders, Jacques? It is an army?”

The black man shook his head. “No, they are a people, Miz Henriette. Like the Children of the Book who fled Egypt. They seek the Promised Land.” Jacques let go of his support and sat back in the canoe. “Don' ax me any more, because I don't know any more, me,” he said.

Then, before he was out of earshot the old man turned.

“But I seen the river, Miz Henriette,” he said. “And it ran red with blood and dead men and horses.”


The sound of boots thudding in the hallway woke Baptiste Dupoix from shallow sleep.

Dawn angled gunmetal light into the hotel room as he swung out of bed and stepped to the window. Outside, four horses stood tethered to the hitching rail, a paint mustang among them. Dupoix recalled that the pony belonged to a kid called Matt Husted, one of the young Texas guns Hacker had hired.

The four youngsters, all of them blue-eyed towheads, had the fresh-faced look of farm boys, and they had been raised well enough that they always walked carefully around Dupoix and called him “Sir.”

But looks were deceiving.

Each wore his gun with confident ease, as though he'd been born to it, and all four had run with some pretty hard crowds and had killed their man.

Husted was the fastest with the iron, maybe as fast as Mickey Pauleen, or so the kids said, but none of them would be a bargain in a gunfight.

The four young men stepped onto the porch to the right of Dupoix's window, and then Pauleen, already dressed in the garb of a malevolent preacher, joined them.

Dupoix couldn't hear what was being said, but the kids listened to Pauleen intently, and whatever he told them, it made all four grin.

The gambler's first thought was that Pauleen was sending them after Hank Cannan—but they wouldn't need blanket rolls and booted Winchesters for that.

Then what?

Whatever was afoot, Dupoix had a stake in the game.

He dressed hurriedly, strapped on his shoulder holster, and made his way downstairs. He met Mickey Pauleen at the door.

“Early for you, Baptiste,” Pauleen said, his cold eyes speculative.

“Yes. I fancy I'll take an early morning ride,” Dupoix said. “Clear my head of last night's whiskey.”

“There's a serpent in every bottle and it biteth like the viper,” Pauleen said. “Ever hear that?”

“No, but the serpent is sure enough biting this morning.”

Dupoix tried to move past Pauleen, but the man stuck his arm out, blocking his way.

“I hear tell you got witch kin over Louisiana way,” the gunman said. “Is that right?”

“On the bayou folks call my grandmother a swamp witch,” Dupoix said.

“Witches should be burned,” Pauleen said.

“Maybe so,” Dupoix said.

He couldn't see a gun on Pauleen, but that didn't mean the man wasn't carrying a hideout.

“Funny thing is, a man who sticks his nose into things that don't concern him can get burned. Just like a swamp witch, huh?”

Dupoix didn't want to push it with Pauleen. The fight for Last Chance hadn't yet begun and when it finally came down he wanted to be on Abe Hacker's side. “Will you give me the road, Mickey?” he said.

The little gunman nodded. “Enjoy your ride, Baptiste. Remember what I said about witches an' sich, huh?”

“Sure, Mickey, I'll remember,” Dupoix said. “A tête-à-tête with you is so much fun, how could I forget?”



Dupoix left the livery and looped wide around town, then swung south. He passed vast wheat and corn fields crisscrossed by irrigation ditches, then the ripening fruit tree orchards where cicadas buzzed.

In the distance a couple of punchers drove a wandering Hereford bull back to their home range. The men waved and Dupoix waved back.

A couple of miles east of town he picked up the tracks of four riders and followed them into the Rio Grande and then to the far bank.

Ahead of him stretched a wilderness of scrub desert and cactus. The far mountains on each side of him stood as dark purple silhouettes against the lapis lazuli sky. The peaks looked as though they'd be cool to the touch, cascading water.

There was no sign of the four young Texans, but then the distances were already rippling, distorting the terrain.

Dupoix kneed his horse forward. The morning sun's glare was dazzling, spiking white, and he tilted his hat forward over his eyes.

He'd taken the precaution of filling his canteen at the livery, and it sloshed with every movement of the horse.

He didn't drink. Not yet.

In the desert, once a man feels the need for water, it's better for him to drink what he has all at once and then find a place to hole up.

Dupoix wasn't that thirsty and he had no intention of riding far into the desert. There was a limit to his curiosity.

After an hour, the tracks veered west and Dupoix followed them.

A few minutes later he heard a rattle of gunshots and drew rein, his eyes scanning into a patchy wilderness of sand and ocotillo. Nothing moved and there was no further sound.

It was hard to tell in the desert, but the shots had been close, not the flat statements of rifles but the sharper bark of revolvers.

Wishful for field glasses, but having none, Dupoix stood in the stirrups and raised his hat above his head, shading his eyes.

The gambler was by nature a far-seeing man, and he was sure he spotted the four Texans in the distance, riding due south.

He waited. The kids were young, but they'd probably run ahead of enough enemies to instinctively check their back trail.

A four-against-one gunfight he was sure to lose was the last thing Dupoix wanted.

The sun was midway between the shimmering horizon and its noon point in the sky, but its heat already hammered at Dupoix and seared through the thin stuff of his shirt. Sweat beaded his forehead and trickled down his back, and his gray horse had suddenly become reluctant to move.

He decided to call it quits and head back to Last Chance. Whatever the young guns were up to, it obviously was nothing to do with Abe Hacker or his plans. Probably the young men were hunting, shooting javelinas and jackrabbits with their Colts.

But then a flicker of white about half a mile ahead of him caught Dupoix's eye.

He stared into the distance and saw a dust devil perform its dervish dance before it spun itself into a column of sand and then collapsed onto the desert floor.

The devil had passed over something and caused that brief glimpse of white.

A scrap of paper? A dead bird? An animal?

Whatever it was, it was in the direction of the shots Dupoix had heard, and he decided it was worth investigating. He pushed the gray into a reluctant walk and rode forward.

When Dupoix got within a hundred yards, the white object became clearer. He rode closer and confirmed what his eyes had earlier told him.

A body law facedown on the sand, and a few yards away sprawled a second, smaller, its brown face turned to the burning sun it could no longer feel.

Dupoix swung out of the saddle and stepped to the still corpses.

Each had been shot several times, their cotton shirts glistening red with blood. The contents of the packs they'd carried on their backs had been scattered. A few miserable possessions, blankets, clean shirts, crusts of bread, and a small rosary with blue beads lay forlornly on the sand.

Both dead were Mexican peons.

Dupoix guessed that they were father and son. The adult was a man in his forties, the boy no older than twelve or thirteen.

Judging by the lack of boot tracks, the killers had shot their victims from horseback and then rode on. It had been a casual killing, murder for no apparent reason.

The young Texas guns were the culprits. Of that there was no doubt.

But why?

Dupoix asked himself that question, and the only answer he could come up with was the obvious one—the Mexicans had been murdered for the sheer joy of killing.

A gambler learns early to conceal his emotions, and Dupoix did so now, his face stiff and without expression. He looked around him... looking for what, he did not know.

Help, maybe. Some people passing by who'd shed a tear for the dead, bury them decent, and say the right prayers.

But there was no one.

Now the murderers were long gone, the desert seemed empty of life, breathless, as though being crushed to death by the massive bookends of the Sierra Madres to the east and west.

To the west, far, but closer than the aloof mountains, sprawled a maze of canyons, some shallow, others as deep and dark as the basements of hell.

Dupoix watched a dust cloud rise a couple of miles south of the canyon lands. At first he thought it might be a sandstorm, but the cloud didn't move on a broad front. Instead it was strung out, like a moving cattle herd.

Was a rancher bringing up a herd from Mexico? It seemed unlikely. No sane man would make a drive across hundreds of miles of scorched, waterless desert in the middle of summer.

Suddenly Dupoix felt too used up to even speculate, the savage heat of the sun getting to him.

The dust cloud was what it was, and no concern of his.

He poured water from his canteen into his open hand and let his horse drink. When the water was all but gone, he took the last couple of swallows, then swung into the saddle. The silver that decorated the horn and pommel were hot to the touch.

Dupoix took a last look at the dead father and son, their bodies already buzzing with fat, black flies.

Somehow he felt the dust cloud near the canyons and the two dead Mexicans were connected. But he was too worn out to make a connection.

He swung his horse north, back toward Last Chance.

He'd let Hank Cannan do the thinking.

BOOK: Day of Independence
11.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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